Inland Northern (American) English,[1] also known in American linguistics as the Inland North or Great Lakes dialect,[2] is an American English dialect spoken in a geographic band reaching from Central New York westward along the Erie Canal, through much of the U.S. Great Lakes region, to eastern Iowa. The most innovative Inland Northern accents are spoken in the cities of Chicago, Illinois; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Detroit, Michigan; Cleveland, Ohio; and Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, New York.[3] A geographic corridor reaching from Chicago southwest along historic Route 66 into St. Louis, Missouri, has also been infiltrated by features of the Inland Northern accent, with the corridor today showing a mixture of both Inland Northern and Midland accents.[4]

Inland Northern U.S. speech was the basis for the term "General American" in the early 20th century,[5][6] though the regional dialect has since altered, due to its now-defining chain shift of vowels that began as late as the 1930s.[7] A 1969 study formally showed lower middle-class women leading the regional population in the first two stages (raising of the short-a vowel and fronting of the short-o vowel) of what, since the 1970s onward, has been documented as the five-stage "Northern cities" vowel shift.[5] However, some recent evidence has suggested a reversal of some features of the shift in certain locations.[8][9]


The dialect region called the "Inland North" consists of western and central New York State (Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Binghamton, Jamestown, Fredonia, Olean); northern Ohio (Akron, Cleveland, Toledo); Michigan's Lower Peninsula (Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Lansing); northern Indiana (Gary, South Bend); northern Illinois (Chicago, Rockford); southeastern Wisconsin (Kenosha, Racine, Milwaukee); and, largely, northeastern Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley/Coal Region (Scranton, Wilkes-Barre). This is the dialect spoken in part of America's chief industrial region, an area sometimes known as the Rust Belt.

Linguists identify the "St. Louis Corridor", extending from Chicago down into St. Louis, as a dialectally remarkable area, because young and old speakers alike have a Midland accent, except for the single generation born between the 1920s and 1940s, who have an Inland Northern accent diffused into the area from Chicago.[10]

Erie, Pennsylvania, though in the geographic area of the "Inland North," never underwent the Northern Cities Shift and now shares more features with Western Pennsylvania English. Meanwhile, in suburban areas, the dialect may be less pronounced, for example, native-born speakers in Kane, McHenry, Lake, DuPage, and Will Counties in Illinois may sound slightly different from speakers from Cook County and particularly those who grew up in Chicago.[citation needed] Many African-Americans in Detroit and other Northern cities are multidialectal and also or exclusively use African American Vernacular English rather than Inland Northern English, but some do use the Inland Northern dialect, as do almost all people in and around the city of Detroit who are not African Americans.


The dialect's origins lie in the middle of the 19th century, when speakers around the Great Lakes began to pronounce the short a sound, /æ/ as in TRAP, as more of a diphthong and with a higher starting point in the mouth, causing the same word to sound more like "tray-ap" or "tray-up". William Labov suggests that this general short-a raising was the result of a simplified mixing of the diverse and incompatible short-a raising patterns of migrants from all over the Northeastern U.S. who came to the rapidly industrializing Great Lakes area in the decades after the Erie Canal opened in 1808.[11] This huge wave of settlement to the Inland North specifically began around 1830, and Labov posits that the dialect-mixing event that preceded the Northern Cities Shift occurred by about 1860 in Upstate New York.[12]

After the Inland North's first vowel change—general /æ/ raising—the dialect remained largely stagnant for about a century, but around the 1960s, the region's speakers began to use the newly opened vowel space (i.e., previously occupied by [æ]) for the short o vowel /ɒ/ (or /ɑ/ in most of the U.S.) as in LOT, so words like bot, gosh, or lock then came to be pronounced with a tongue extended farther forward, thus making them sound more like how bat, gash, and lack sound in dialects without the shift. This vowel change was first reported in 1967, with several more vowels following suit in rapid succession, each filling in the space left by the last, including the lowering of /ɔː/ as in THOUGHT, the backing and lowering of /ɛ/ as in DRESS, the backing of /ʌ/ as in STRUT (first reported in 1986),[13] and the backing and lowering of /ɪ/ as in KIT, often but not always in that order. Altogether, this constitutes a chain shift of vowels, identified as such in 1972, and known by linguists as the Northern Cities Vowel Shift (NCS): the defining pattern of the current Inland Northern accent.[14][14]

One theory for which factors initiated the Northern Cities Shift is the inherited pronunciation system of nineteenth-century Western New England English, whose speakers originally settled the Inland North and who today variably show NCS-like TRAP and LOT/PALM. A competing theory, however, is that German-accented English initiated the shift, since German speakers will tend to pronounce the English TRAP vowel as [ɛ] and the LOT/PALM vowel as [ä~a], and Upstate New York was over 40% German by 1850.[15]

The shift, found throughout the Great Lakes cities, continues to exist today; however, recent evidence suggests a reversal of the shift in at least some of its previously strong areas,[8][9] at least with respect to the short a reverting to [æ] before non-nasal consonants and the short o reverting to [ɑ]. This includes Lansing, Michigan,[8] and Syracuse, New York.[9]

The dialect's progression across the Midwest appears to have stopped (and begun to retreat from in some cases) at a general boundary line traveling through central Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois and then western Wisconsin, on the other sides of which speakers have continued to maintain their Midland and North Central accents. Sociolinguist William Labov theorizes that this separation reflects a political divide: Inland Northern speakers tend to be more politically liberal—and be perceived as such in controlled studies—than those of the other dialects, especially as Americans continue to self-segregate in residence based on ideological concerns. Paul Ryan, the 54th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Governor of Michigan Rick Snyder are examples of prominent Republican politicians demonstrating features of the dialect.[14]


Phonology and phonetics

The monophthongs of Southern Michigan on a vowel chart, typical of the Northern cities vowel shift, though not to the extreme. Adapted from Hillenbrand (2003).[16]
The diphthongs of Southern Michigan on a vowel chart, adapted from Hillenbrand (2003).[16]
Based on Labov et al.; averaged F1/F2 means for speakers from the Inland North. Note that /æ/ is higher and fronter than /ɛ/, while /ʌ/ is more retracted than /ɑ/.
All vowels of the Inland Northern dialect
Pure vowels (Monophthongs)
English diaphoneme Inland Northern realization Example words
/æ/ eə~ɪə bath, trap, man
/ɑː/ a~ä blah, bother, father,
lot, top, wasp
ɒ(ː) all, dog, bought,
loss, saw, taught
/ɛ/ ɛ~ɜ dress, met, bread
/ə/ ə about, syrup, arena
/ɪ/ ɪ~ɪ̈ hit, skim, tip
ɪ~ɪ̈~ə island, gamut, wasted
/iː/ ɪi~i beam, chic, fleet
/ʌ/ ʌ~ɔ bus, flood, what
/ʊ/ ʊ book, put, should
/uː/ u~ɵu food, glue, new
/aɪ/ ae~aɪ~æɪ ride, shine, try
ɐɪ~ɐi bright, dice, fire
/aʊ/ äʊ~ɐʊ now, ouch, scout
/eɪ/ lame, rein, stain
/ɔɪ/ ɔɪ boy, choice, moist
/oʊ/ ʌo~oʊ~o goat, oh, show
R-colored vowels
/ɑːr/ äɻ~ɐɻ barn, car, park
/ɪər/ iɻ~iɚ fear, peer, tier
/ɛər/ eɪɻ bare, bear, there
/ɜːr/ əɻ~ɚ burn, doctor, first,
herd, learn, murder
/ɔːr/ ɔɻ~oɻ hoarse, horse, poor
score, tour, war
/jʊər/ jəɻ~jɚ cure, Europe, pure
† Footnotes
When followed by /r/, the phoneme /ɒ/ is pronounced entirely differently by Inland North speakers as [ɔ~o], for example, in the words orange, forest, and torrent. The only exceptions to this are the words tomorrow, sorry, sorrow, borrow and, for some speakers, morrow, which use the sound [a~ä].

A Midwestern accent (which may refer to other dialectal accents as well), Chicago accent, or Great Lakes accent are all common names in the United States for the sound quality produced by speakers of this dialect. Many of the characteristics listed here are not necessarily unique to the region and are oftentimes found elsewhere in the Midwest.

  • Rhoticity: As in General American, Inland North speech is rhotic, and the r sound is typically the retroflex (or perhaps, more accurately, the bunched or molar) [ɻ].
  • Marymarrymerry merger: Words that formerly contained /æ/, /ɛ/, or /eɪ/ before an r and a vowel are all pronounced as [ɛ~eɪ] followed by r followed by the vowel, so that Mary, marry, and merry all sound the same, and have the same first vowel as Sharon, Sarah, and bearing. This merger is widespread throughout the Midwest, West, and Canada.
  • Northern Cities Vowel Shift: This chain shift is found primarily in the Inland North—in fact, it is the feature that largely defines the Inland North, for modern dialectological purposes. Note that this shift is in progress across the region with some stages completed but not others in particular areas of the Inland North; also, there is evidence that some stages of the shift can occur in certain areas without the presumably-previous stage being completed first, and other evidence that the shift is reversing at least in some areas,[8][9] in particular with regards to the raising of /æ/ before non-nasal consonants and fronting of /ɒ/. Regardless, this vowel shift has been occurring in six overall stages:
  1. The first and most common stage of the shift is the raising, fronting, and "breaking" of /æ/ universally (i.e., every instance of the "short a," thus, in words like cat, trap, bath, staff, etc.), which therefore comes to be realized as a tensed diphthong of the type [eə] or [ɪə]; e.g. naturally as About this sound [ˈneətʃɻəɫi].
  2. The second stage is the fronting of /ɒ/, which in most American accents is [ɑ~ä], towards [a~æ]—in words like not, wasp, blah, and coupon (About this sound [ˈkupan])—which occupies a place close to (but opener than) the former /æ/.
  3. In the third stage, /ɔː/ (in words like law, thought and all) lowers towards [ɑ] or [ɒ]; with Inland North speakers, this is more precisely [ɒ(ː)], since they front the former phoneme /ɒ/ phoneme (e.g., in rod) to [a], thus maintaining a distinction between words like cot [kat] and caught [kɒːt].[17] However, there is a definite scattering of Inland North speakers who are in a state of transition towards a cotcaught merger; this is particularly noticeable in northeastern Pennsylvania.[18][19] Speakers reversing the fronting of /ɒ/ also sometimes approach a merger.[8]
  4. The fourth stage is the backing and lowering of /ɛ/, almost towards [ɐ].
  5. During the fifth stage, /ʌ/ (in words like cut, mud and luck) is backed in the mouth.
  6. In the sixth stage, /ɪ/ (in words like if, bib and pin) is lowered and backed, although it is kept distinct from /ɛ/ in all phonetic environments, so the pinpen merger does not occur.
  • Canadian raising: Two phenomena typically exist, corresponding with identical phenomena in Canadian English, involving tongue-raising in the nuclei (beginning points) of gliding vowels that start in an open front (or central) unrounded position:
    • The raising of the tongue for the nucleus of the gliding vowel // is found in the Inland North when the vowel sound appears before any voiceless consonant, just like in General American, thus distinguishing, for example, between writer and rider (About this sound listen).[20] However, unlike General American, the raising occurs even before certain voiced consonants, including in the words fire, tiger, iron, and spider. When it is not subject to raising, the nucleus of /aɪ/ is pronounced with the tongue further to the front of the mouth as [a̟ɪ] or [ae]; however, in the Inland North speech of Pennsylvania alone, the nucleus is centralized, thus: [äɪ].[21]
    • The nucleus of /aʊ/ may be more backed than in other common North American accents (towards [ɐʊ] or [äʊ]).
  • The nucleus of // (as in go and boat), like /aʊ/, remains a back vowel [oʊ], not undergoing the fronting that is common in other regions and General American. Similarly, the traditionally high back vowel /uː/ tends to be conservative and less fronted in the North than in other regions, though it still undergoes some fronting after coronal consonants.[22]
  • /ɑːr/ (as in bar, sorry, or start) is centralized or fronted for many speakers in this region, resulting in variants like [äɻ~ɐɻ].
  • Working-class th-stopping: The two sounds represented by the spelling th/θ/ (as in thin) and /ð/ (as in those)—may shift from fricative consonants to stop consonants among urban and working-class speakers: thus, for example, thin may approach the sound of tin (using [t]) and those may merge to the sound of doze (using [d]).[23] This was parodied in the comedy sketch "Bill Swerski's Superfans," in which characters hailing from Chicago pronounce "The Bears" as "Da Bears."
  • Caramel is typically pronounced with two syllables as carmel.[24]


Note that not all of these terms, here compared with other regions, are necessarily unique only to the Inland North, though they appear most strongly in this region:[24]

  • Devil's Night for the night before Halloween (not Northeastern Mischief Night)[25]
  • Faucet for a water tap (not Southern spigot)
  • Goose pimples as a synonym for goose bumps
  • Boulevard as a synonym for island (in the sense of a grassy area in the middle of some streets)
  • Expressway as a synonym for highway
  • Pit for the seed of a peach (not Southern stone or seed)
  • Pop for a sweet, bubbly soft drink (not Eastern and Californian soda, nor Southern coke)
    • The "soda/pop line" has been found to run between Western New York State (Buffalo residents say "pop", Syracuse residents who used to say "pop" until sometime in the 1970s now say "soda", and Rochester residents say either. Lollipops are also known as "suckers" in this region. Eastern Wisconsinites around Milwaukee and some Chicagoans are also an exception, using the word soda.)
  • Teeter totter as a synonym for seesaw
  • Tennis shoes or gym shoes for generic athletic shoes (not Northeastern sneakers, except in New York State and Pennsylvania)

Individual cities and sub-regions also have their own terms; for example:

Notable lifelong native speakers

See also


  1. ^ Kortmann, Bernd, Kate Burridge, Rajend Mesthrie, Edgar W. Schneider and Clive Upton (eds) (2004). A Handbook of Varieties of English. Volume 1: Phonology, Volume 2: Morphology and Syntax. Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter. p. xvi.
  2. ^ Garn-Nunn, Pamela G.; Lynn, James M. (2004). Calvert's Descriptive Phonetics. Thieme, p. 136.
  3. ^ Gordon, Matthew J. (2004). "New York, Philadelphia, and other northern cities: phonology." Kortmann, Bernd, Kate Burridge, Rajend Mesthrie, Edgar W. Schneider and Clive Upton (eds). A Handbook of Varieties of English. Volume 1: Phonology, Volume 2: Morphology and Syntax. Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter. p. 297.
  4. ^ Labov et al., Chapter 19, p. 276.
  5. ^ a b Labov et al., p. 190.
  6. ^ "Talking the Tawk", The New Yorker
  7. ^ Gordon, Matthew J. (2005). "Vowel Shifting". Do You Speak American? MacNeil/Lehrer Productions.
  8. ^ a b c d e Wagner, S. E.; Mason, A.; Nesbitt, M.; Pevan, E.; Savage, M. (2016). "Reversal and re-organization of the Northern Cities Shift in Michigan" (PDF). University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 22.2: Selected Papers from NWAV 44. 
  9. ^ a b c d Driscoll, Anna; Lape, Emma (2015). "Reversal of the Northern Cities Shift in Syracuse, New York". University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics. 21 (2). 
  10. ^ Friedman, Lauren (2015). A Convergence of Dialects in the St. Louis Corridor. Volume 21. Issue 2. Selected Papers from New Ways of Analyzing Variation(NWAV). 43. Article 8. University of Pennsylvania.
  11. ^ Labov, William. (2007). Transmission and Diffusion. Language. 83. 344-387. p. 42 of this PDF.
  12. ^ Castro Calle, Yesid. (2017). "German Echoes in American English: How New-dialect Formation Triggered the Northern Cities Shift". Stanford University Department of Linguistics (Undergraduate Honors Thesis). pp. 34, 48.
  13. ^ Labov, William (2008). "Yankee Cultural Imperialism and the Northern Cities Shift". PowerPoint presentation for paper given at Yale University, October 20, 2008. Online at University of Pennsylvania. Slide 94.
  14. ^ a b c Sedivy, Julie (March 28, 2012). "Votes and Vowels: A Changing Accent Shows How Language Parallels Politics". Discover. Retrieved January 24, 2016. 
  15. ^ Castro Calle, Yesid. (2017). "German Echoes in American English: How New-dialect Formation Triggered the Northern Cities Shift". Stanford University Department of Linguistics (Undergraduate Honors Thesis). pp. 49.
  16. ^ a b Hillenbrand, James M. (2003). "American English: Southern Michigan". Journal of the International Phonetic Association. 33 (1): 122. doi:10.1017/S0025100303001221. 
  17. ^ Labov et al., Chapter 14, p. 189.
  18. ^ Labov et al., p. 61.
  19. ^ Herold, Ruth (1990). "Mechanisms of Merger: The Implementation and Distribution of the Low Back Merger in Eastern Pennsylvania." Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Pennsylvania.
  20. ^ Labov et al. (2006), pp. 203-204.
  21. ^ Labov et al. (2006), pp. 161.
  22. ^ Labov et al. (2006), p. 187
  23. ^ van den Doel, Rias (2006). How Friendly Are the Natives? An Evaluation of Native-Speaker Judgements of Foreign-Accented British and American English (PDF). Landelijke onderzoekschool taalwetenschap (Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics). pp. 268–269. 
  24. ^ a b Vaux, Bert and Scott Golder. 2003. The Harvard Dialect Survey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Linguistics Department.
  25. ^ Metcalf, Allan A. (2000). How We Talk: American Regional English Today. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 104.
  26. ^ Metcalf, Allan A. (2000). How We Talk: American Regional English Today. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 97.
  27. ^ Feather, Kasey. "NEPAisms overlooked in new dictionary entries". The Times-Tribune. Times-Shamrock Communications. Retrieved 27 November 2016. 
  28. ^ Chozick, Amy (December 28, 2015). "How Hillary Clinton Went Undercover to Examine Race in Education". The New York Times. Retrieved February 2, 2016. 
  29. ^ Gostin, Nick (2011). "Joan Cusack on 'Mars Needs Moms,' Raising Kids and Her Famous Brother". Parentdish (AOL Inc.)republished at http://www.childcarequest.com/Parent-Dish/joan-cusack-on-mars-needs-moms-raising-kids-and-her-famous-brother.html 
  30. ^ Stein, Anne (2003). "The über-mayor: what's behind Daley's longevity". Christian Science Monitor. 
  31. ^ Wawzenek, Bryan. "10 Actors Who Always Show Up on the Best TV Shows." Diffuser.
  32. ^ "Disturbed? not if you're David Draiman". Today. June 15, 2006. Retrieved April 5, 2016. 
  33. ^ Moser, Whet (March 29, 2012). "Where the Chicago Accent Comes From and How Politics is Changing It". Chicago Mag. Retrieved December 27, 2015. 
  34. ^ Dennis Farina, 'Law & Order' actor, dies at 69. NBC News. 2013. 
  35. ^ Desowitz, Bill (October 16, 2009). "'Fantastic Mr. Fox' Goes to London". Animation World Network. Retrieved January 7, 2016. 
  36. ^ "Dennis Franz". Encyclopædia Brittanica. 2014. 
  37. ^ Metcalf, Allan (2004). Presidential Voices: Speaking Styles from George Washington to George W. Bush. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 156. 
  38. ^ Crowder, Courtney (December 9, 2014). "'Normal kid' from Park Ridge lifts 'Goldbergs'". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved January 6, 2018. 
  39. ^ Media Literacy: A Reader. Peter Lang. 2007. p. 55. 
  40. ^ Congressional Record, V. 150, Pt. 17, October 9 to November 17, 2004
  41. ^ Brooks, Jake (2004). "Mr. Skin Invades Sundance". The New York Observer. Observer Media. 
  42. ^ McClelland, Edward (2013). Nothin' but Blue Skies. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. p. 85. 
  43. ^ "Bush fears Moore because he speaks to the heart of America". The Independent (UK). 2004. 
  44. ^ Dominus, Susan (2009). "Suze Orman Is Having a Moment". The New York Times. 
  45. ^ AFP (October 14, 2014). "Iggy Pop's advice for young rockers". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved April 1, 2016. 
  46. ^ Landers, Peter (October 11, 2012). "Paul Ryan Sounds Radical to Linguists". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved January 24, 2016. 
  47. ^ "Michael Symon: 2007 winner of 'The Next Iron Chef'". Chicago Tribune. 2015. 
  48. ^ Maupin, Elizabeth (1997). "'Signs': Still Briming With Intelligent Life." Orlando Sentinel.


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